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The Once and Future Liberal

Obama runs as the progressive that he is.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Much of the loyal opposition’s response to President Obama’s new position in favor of gay marriage centered on the back-and-forth in which he has indulged over the years getting to it. He was for it; he was against it; now he’s for it again (not that he apparently proposes to do anything to advance the cause beyond his “historic” expression of personal support). In short, the “evolved” presidential view is of the genus “political cynicism”: On the eve of a major Hollywood fundraiser (and, hmm, a Washington Post exposé on Mitt Romney’s prep school bully-boy days), Obama chose to pander to a group that was feeling under-pandered-to.

Flag with Obama's face on it at a gay pride rally

One reason for this line of attack on Obama was surely a level of GOP discomfort with the issue. In politics, if you can tag somebody for hypocrisy or flip-flopping, you are relieved of the responsibility of taking a substantive stand. On this issue, it’s mainly only religious conservatives who are willing to give voice to the viewpoint underlying, for example, the North Carolina ballot proposition defining marriage as between a man and a woman, which was approved 61-39 the day before the president’s announcement. Others are wary, and increasingly so, of implying that gay or lesbian coupledom is deficient.

Nevertheless, the charge of opportunism misses the real political import of the gesture. So did the subsequent debate over the electoral implications: Would supporting gay marriage cost Obama more in the middle than he stood to gain from the enthusiasm of an important constituency? What about Catholic voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania?

The point is that in this case, Obama’s cynicism, opportunism, pandering, evolution, whatever, led him to advocate the position he really believes in. It’s a rarefied form of cynicism, perhaps not seen since Diogenes, that causes you to say exactly what you think.

The Obama camp had some back-filling to do, mainly to cope with Joe Biden’s having forced Obama’s hand when the vice president declared his support for gay marriage the previous Sunday. Obama himself claimed he had arrived at the decision to shift his position earlier and was only waiting for a suitable time to announce it.

Was that bit about getting the timing right more cynicism? Perhaps. But it tells us something else as well. Obama makes a distinction between a conviction he harbors and a position he takes. Apparently, such differences do not trouble him deeply—otherwise, he might have felt obliged to announce his change of mind on gay marriage immediately, if indeed he ever believed the position he once took that marriage must be between a man and a woman.

Nor, perhaps, should such discrepancies between convictions and positions be hugely troubling to someone who seeks his fortune in democratic politics. The capacity for a certain amount of disingenuousness would seem to be not so much an occupational hazard as an essential job qualification. Nevertheless, there are degrees of disingenuousness.

So maybe it’s time to consider the broader possibility Obama’s shift here raises, namely, that he has decided to run his 2012 campaign in much closer alignment to his genuine convictions.

Exhibit A is gay marriage. But it’s hardly the only indication. After having punted on the issue a couple of times in his first term by agreeing to extensions of the Bush tax cuts, Obama seems more adamant these days on the point that the rich must pay more, and the reason seems to be not so much because government needs the money, but because it’s only fair they do. The president took the trouble to warn the Supreme Court not to overturn his health care law, which he said (inaccurately) would be without pre-cedent. The insistence on inclusion of contraceptives and abortifacients in health care plans offered by institutions with religious objections to them went a long way to make a point about universality. You can’t get rid of fossil fuels in a day, but you can stop the Keystone XL pipeline. The deep cuts in the military budget Obama has called for seem like a reprise of the old-school liberal preference for butter over guns. His campaign slogan is, quite simply, “Forward.”

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